Seattle Storm 59 @ Connecticut Sun 71
Lineups: After two dismal performances last weekend, Seattle made a change to their starting lineup with Alysha Clark replacing Noelle Quinn at small forward. Replacing one mediocre wing with one of their eighteen other mediocre wings was never going to make much difference, but why not? Connecticut stuck with the same group that had started their previous two games.
Story of the Game: On the bright side for Seattle, they didn’t get taken apart to quite the same extent as in their games last weekend. On the negative side, they lost by double-digits for the third straight game, and to a much weaker opponent than the ones that beat them in the first two. The Storm made a decent start, but that quickly dissipated and Connecticut pulled in front for good in the second quarter. It was only a six-point lead at halftime, and still only six early in the fourth quarter, but the Sun dominated the closing stages to ease home fairly comfortably.
Seattle’s lack of size was painfully evident in this game. They got Crystal Langhorne more involved in the offense than she had been in their previous outings, and Camille Little’s physical low-post defense affected Chiney Ogwumike’s post-up attack, but the flaw was still a significant problem. Most of Ogwumike’s production came via the offensive glass and second-chance looks, while Kelsey Bone looked like a giant in the paint when she came off the bench for the Sun. And it’s not just about the one-on-one issues, or the rebounding. Being so small means you have to send more help when defenders are overmatched, which opens up bigger holes elsewhere when the ball is reversed – and makes the rebounding issues starker because a second post is often dragged out of position.
Little and Langhorne are already a small starting pair – and Langhorne doesn’t ‘play big’ like Tina Thompson seemed capable of in the same role last year – but when either needs a rest or is in foul trouble, the likes of Jenna O’Hea, Nicole Powell and Clark are masquerading as post players. Brian Agler has no faith in his only actual backup post, Angel Robinson, and didn’t use her until garbage time. It’s going to hurt them all year, probably even more once teams have more video and gameplan to attack it repeatedly.
The same turnovers and sloppiness as in their first two games also affected the Storm, although they made some runs to keep themselves in the game when they managed to inject some pace. At the moment, they rarely look capable of scoring enough points to balance what they’ve got left to offer on the defensive end.
Key Players: Despite Little’s defense, Ogwumike still led the Sun with 18 points on 7-12 from the floor. She’s got enough athleticism and works hard enough that she can find points even when it’s difficult to produce on standard post touches. Kelsey Bone also had her first good game in a Sun jersey while exploiting her size advantage, and Kelsey Griffin picked up boards and made hustle plays all night.
Allison Hightower also showed off her continually improving offensive game, featuring strong drives (always to her left) and a decent jumper. She’s not really a point guard – she’s an initiator who can bring the ball up and start your offense, but she isn’t an instinctive creator for teammates – but she’s a productive player whatever you’re asking her to do.
Langhorne was Seattle’s only double-digit scorer, while everyone else hit a shot or two as the night went along, but without any consistency. Agler and his team have a lot of work to do.
Washington Mystics 79 @ Indiana Fever 63
Lineups: Indiana were unchanged, with Tamika Catchings still unavailable due to her sore back. They swapped injured backup guards, with Layshia Clarendon back from her concussion, but Sydney Carter wearing a boot to protect a sprained ankle. Washington made a surprise change to their backcourt, with Ivory Latta – one of the few productive offensive players in their opener – relegated to the bench in favour of rookie Bria Hartley. It was evidence of the truth behind Mike Thibault’s statements that he sees his roster as having three strong, interchangeable guards. And maybe of the need for more instant offense from his reserves.
Story of the Game: Indiana got off to an awful start in the first quarter, semi-recovered in the second, and then meekly surrendered in the second half. After two losses last weekend that were at least closely contested games they could’ve won, this was a depressingly lifeless performance where they were outplayed for most of the night by the Mystics.
The combination of Kia Vaughn and Emma Meesseman in the post for Washington completely shut down rookie Fever forward Natasha Howard in the early stages, and Howard was a virtual non-factor for the rest of the night. Indiana went small for long stretches with either Karima Christmas or Marissa Coleman as the de facto power forward, but that didn’t really help at either end of the floor.
Washington played with more pace and drive throughout, attacking in transition or semi-transition whenever the chance was there, while Indiana always seemed to be walking the ball up. Against a solid, organised Mystics defense, the Fever never managed to find many holes or create good looks. Last season, when the roster was riddled with injuries, remaining important players like Briann January and Erlana Larkins rarely managed to raise their games to replace the missing production. This was remarkably similar, with Coleman and Shavonte Zellous joining them in failing to step up without Catchings to lead the team.
Key Players: Washington were impressively balanced. Hartley played with confidence, and hit several shots in a third quarter push that reestablished the Mystics’ lead after the Fever cut into it in the second. Vaughn and Meesseman, with support from Stefanie Dolson and Tianna Hawkins off the bench, provided the solid interior base that they needed. It was honestly hard to pick out individuals from such a collective performance.
No one played well for Indiana at any meaningful stage. Maggie Lucas hit a bunch of shots in the fourth quarter when the game was dead.
Notes of Interest: While their offense largely lacks the drive-and-kick attack and transition speed that it needs, the most conspicuous failing for Indiana so far this year is that their defense doesn’t seem ‘special’ at all. The one thing we could always rely on with this team was that their defense would unsettle opponents, harassing them into mistakes, turnovers and bad shots. There has been virtually no sign of that. The absence of Catchings shouldn’t prevent their defense from playing with its usual attitude. And with Howard and Coleman the only significant new pieces, they should be more cohesive as a group as well.
And Marissa Coleman is playing too big a role in the offense. Yes, they don’t have that many weapons. But she’s a complementary offensive player, who can be decent in that role. When she’s constantly looking to score and trying to be a central cog, your team’s not going to do too well on this level. She’s just not good enough.
Minnesota Lynx 94 @ Tulsa Shock 93
Lineups: Same again for both teams, with Janel McCarville’s ankle-turn late in their previous game not serious enough to keep her out, and Riquna Williams continuing to start ahead of Odyssey Sims for Tulsa.
Story of the Game: Maya Moore is freaking ridiculous. Still. Again. Some more. Seimone Augustus isn’t far behind her. Minnesota controlled the first half behind Moore’s 10-16 for 27 points (yes, that’s just from the opening 20 minutes). Tulsa couldn’t cope with her in any way, shape or form.
However, the Shock hung around without letting their deficit get too far out of hand, and they exploited gaps in the Lynx defense that Cheryl Reeve will not have been happy about. Eventually in the fourth quarter, Tulsa climbed all the way back in, and took the lead for the first time all night on a Sims drive with under four minutes remaining.
Minnesota went back up by a point on two Moore free throws with 12 seconds left – the Lynx went small with Moore at power forward, and Glory Johnson couldn’t handle her off the dribble. After a neverending sequence of replay reviews, timeouts, a messy Shock possession and the Lynx using their foul-to-give, Tulsa were left inbounding again with only 2.7 seconds left. The best they could manage was a contested heave from Diggins from a mile out, which airballed, and the Lynx had held on. Tulsa, yet again, lost a close game in the final seconds. So far, the Fred Williams Shock are no better in these situations than the Gary Kloppenburg iteration.
Key Players: Moore was kept much quieter in the second half, partly because Tulsa sent more help at her, and partly because it’s just hard to play that well for 40 minutes. She finished with 38 (becoming just the third WNBA player to score 30+ in three straight games). Augustus has been just about the best ‘Robin’ you’ll ever see in their opening games this season, and did the same again. The double-act didn’t get a lot of offensive help, and the five starters all played a lot of minutes, which could come back to haunt them in games tonight and on Monday.
After a disappointing first game as a pro, Sims showed much more of what she’s capable of in this game. Outside shooting and aggressive drives to the hoop provided strong support for Diggins, who’s also clearly worked hard on her ability to finish when she drives to the basket. Sims also showed a fondness – and the requisite bravery – for throwing skip passes to shooters on the opposite side of the floor. That’s a useful weapon to have in your armory against Minnesota, because they flood the strong side defensively to provide help. That weak side shooter, if you can get her the ball, is usually going to be wide open.
Notes of Interest: In Diggins, Sims and Williams, Tulsa have three players who all like to do very similar things. While it’s nice to have guards who can both shoot and attack off the dribble, it’s really starting to feel like an unnecessary duplication of skills – especially for a team that has so many holes elsewhere. With Diggins the public face of the franchise, and Sims the fresh rookie talent, Williams must surely be available if someone wants to put together a decent trade offer. She has her flaws, but she can also be a dynamic scorer.
Meanwhile, Glory Johnson has to be used more by this team. Yes, the guards have individual talent, but Johnson was starting to put her name into the all-star conversation last year. She’s barely seeing the ball, except off broken plays or when she grabs offensive rebounds for herself. Pick-and-rolls are supposed to occasionally end with the ball returning to the roller – not always in drives or jump shots for the ballhandler.
San Antonio Stars 78 @ Phoenix Mercury 74
Lineups: Becky Hammon was back for the Stars, making her first appearance of the season after an ankle sprain forced her to miss their first two games (and an ACL tear kept her out of virtually the entire 2013 season). She replaced Jia Perkins in the starting lineup. Phoenix started the same group as in their earlier games.
Story of the Game: This was an odd game. Despite their size advantage all over the floor, Phoenix gave up far too much space inside and far too many easy rebounds to San Antonio in the first half, which allowed the Stars to control much of the opening 20 minutes. A run of late jumpers for the Mercury cut their deficit to only four at the break, which masked how significantly they’d been outplayed to that point in the game.
With Brittney Griner getting more involved, and the Stars cooling off, Phoenix took the lead in the third quarter, but a 14-1 run for San Antonio across the end of the third and start of the fourth swung the game back to the Stars. Foul trouble for both Griner and opposing center Jayne Appel caused issues for their respective teams – the replacements on both sides were a signficant downgrade, and opened up the middle of the defense.
After an Erin Phillips drive cut the Mercury’s deficit to two with a minute remaining, Danielle Robinson failed to convert on a contested layup before Diana Taurasi turned the ball over after driving into a cul-de-sac of defenders. Jia Perkins missed a three at the other end, but a huge offensive board by Appel, followed by a pair of made free throws, iced the game for San Antonio.
Key Players: The Stars had good balance offensively, with everyone sharing in their exploitation of Phoenix’s defense. Robinson flirted with a triple-double, finishing 6-10 for 14 points, 8 rebounds and 9 assists. It was also noticeable that she was the one in control in the closing stages, rather than Hammon. Maybe that’s because Becky only just came back from injury, but the generational handover is slowly continuing in San Antonio. Perkins, as usual, is just as comfortable providing her offense from the bench as she is as a starter.
Taurasi led the Mercury offense, because so few of her teammates seemed capable of getting anything going. They didn’t look for Griner enough, even given that Appel is a useful post defender, and the bench was very quiet. DeWanna Bonner continues to be a more effective offensive player this year, taking what’s on offer rather than forcing things, although her defense is still at the dismal level that it dropped to over the last couple of years. She loses track of her assignments, lets people go by her or brush her off far too easily, and is generally disappointingly poor on that end of the floor for someone with her tools.
Erin Phillips is presumably still being eased back by the Mercury after all the knee problems she had last year, because otherwise the amount of time she’s spent on the bench in their first few games has been a little odd. Taurasi’s great on the ball, but Phillips was acquired so that Diana didn’t have to spend so much time in that role.
Notes of Interest: There’s firepower on the Mercury bench (not that they showed it in this game), but there aren’t many plus defenders. Considering there aren’t too many in their starting lineup either, Sandy Brondello’s going to have the juggle her lineups carefully this season. Team defense can cover a lot if you can get everyone to buy in and work hard, plus Griner in the paint scares away a lot of drivers (if she can stay out of foul trouble). They’re also working on a matchup zone (it was an absolute mess in this game when they tried it). But if you put five minus defensive players on the floor at the same time, it’s difficult to survive. They shot 56% in this game – it was turnovers and defense that gave it away.
Griner herself still isn’t entirely comfortable covering the pick-and-roll, a mainstay of nearly every possession in the pro game. She jumps out too hard on ballhandlers, or leans too far in either direction and lets people go by. Her natural athleticism and speed allows her to compensate a lot of the time, and her size and length still provides an imposing presence at the rim, but she has plenty of things to work on at that end of the floor.
Jelena Milovanovic (Washington) came off the bench late in the Mystics’ game, so her nasty-looking knee twist last weekend obviously didn’t prove too serious.
Maya Moore landed awkwardly and turned an ankle after trying to challenge a Courtney Paris hook in the fourth quarter of Minnesota’s game, but played on and didn’t seem too hindered. Glory Johnson took a tough hit on a Janel McCarville screen late in the same game, but also played on.
Seattle @ Washington, 7pm ET
New York @ Minnesota, 8pm ET
Atlanta @ Chicago, 8pm ET
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